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Technology and Modern Day Manners

This summer we dined out with my extended family in Boston. In the middle of the meal, my mother remarked, “I’m sorry, I just have to say something. Ethan is wearing his hat to dinner and I find it disrespectful.” I was quite surprised but asked my 8 year old to take off his new Patriots cap. Then she sighed and went on to say about my niece, “and Kate is doing that email thing. Kids today just do not have manners.” She meant texting but you get the point. Since then I have been polling people about technology and the potential demise of manners.


The technology revolution has been raging for some time but today’s acceleration is toward electronic devices used by individuals. Every child, teenager and young adult has some electronic device and likely has more than one. Are we raising a disaffected generation with no manners? After some research, we may need to shift our expectations and assumptions and adopt a more modern approach to “manners.” Along with the “electronics” technology revolution is a cultural revolution. Here are seven observations:


This is a common scenario in our minivan. My youngest two children are watching a Scooby Doo video, listening with headsets. My tween is playing a loud game on his iTouch and my 13-year-old is listening to music with earphones on her iPhone. I feel like an unpaid taxi driver and they do not even make an attempt at polite conversation. Do my children have bad manners? Actually, they are being typical kids that have more options for passing the car ride than we had when we were kids. But I have to shed my feeling that my kids are being rude – times have changes and this is not rude behavior, as long as they say hello and thank you.


Kids text a lot and probably more than you are aware. And their words look like old-fashioned shorthand – no one taught them specifically, but they all know the symbols and jargon (“b4, lol, r u” for example). One surprising thing they text is bad news. They cancel, break up and give bad news in truncated sentences via text. Most adults consider this very rude. But to them it is not rude because they text everything, good and bad. As many adults did not grow up texting, sometimes texting is used as an avoiding tactic, so we put this motive on kids. But the motive simply is not there and it is not bad manners on their part.


In the past, the only people walking down the street, talking out loud to no one in particular were assumed to be “crazy.” Now, this much more common sight is someone talking on the phone, using their headset. They do not consider it rude to walk in a store, coffee shop or office elevator continuing their call. This is simply not rude to them. Kids sleep with their cell phones and carry them, every waking moment, even to the bathroom. The beeping sounds and vibrations are part of their culture. They exchange texts, pictures and news this way, and, news they care about spreads like wildfire. This is not bad manners to them; this is how they communicate. If you really want them to turn off their cell phone for a class or other reason, ask them specifically and they will oblige. Of course, they will still watch for texts.


This next one will be hard for people to accept – hand written thank you notes on store bought stationary are a thing of the past unless your child wants to do this. The important thing is they acknowledge receipt of the gift. This can be done via phone call, email, youtube video, facetime, etc.. Stop making your kids hand write notes because it makes you feel better; it’s a legacy of guilt your parents put on you. I asked a group of kids about mailing thank you letters from the post office — they said the post office was a good field trip; other than that they had never been!


Teenagers and young adults do not listen to voice mails. In fact, many young people are annoyed by them. Their peer to peer behavior is to call and hang up if no one answers. They can see the number on their phone and will call back if they want to speak to that person. Or, you can text them something important you want them to see. They find it funny that we continue to display bad manners and annoy them with long, boring voicemails.


With access to technology comes content with lots of “bad language.” You can limit your child’s exposure to the worst of it, but you can’t stop all of it. It is just too prevalent. So we need to modify our definition of good manners. Instead of asking them to “never swear,” we need request each child become “a smarter swearer” and understand the degrees of bad language. They need to be mature enough to know when NOT to use inappropriate language. I tell them I know children say “something sucks” every second on the playground, but I do not allow it in the house, around teachers, or in front of younger children. We also have taboo words that should never be uttered and we don’t use bad language in front of an older person, whom I define as over 60; otherwise they assumer “older person” means someone over 30.


Another formally important good manners issue is how you address someone. For today’s 18-25 year-old crowd, how to address older adults when they become young adults is truly a dilemma for them. This is an evolving issue as I write this. Do you really want them to address you as Mrs. Henslow forever? And email and technology makes it harder so they will often write “Hi!” or “hello” with no title, just the salutation. They are not trying to be rude or overly familiar, they honestly do not know what you want to be called.


Given everything, I still hold some “good manner” habits dear and want to keep them going for as long as possible:


Eye contact


Family meals unplugged at least twice a week


Boys with manners (hold the door, etc.)


Being able to have a polite conversation


But be sure to leverage this knowledge – let them know you know they have that cellphone with them every second and there is never an excuse not to respond…immediately! But you have to learn to text to use this advantage.


We created the technology; they are just using it in ways they determine without checking with us. Because we do not get to choose the norms of their generation or the etiquette of their peer to peer interactions. Yes, we can lament the demise of some aspects of a less-wired generation; we can even set limits but we cannot halt the culture change they are driving.